Aoradh Wilderness Retreat 2011…

I’ll be off line for a few days…

Over the coming weekend, 11 of us will be heading off to a tiny uninhabited island for this years Aoradh wilderness retreat.

This year we will be here

There will be 11 of us this year- from London, Lancashire and Argyll, and I am really looking forward to it.

We have prepared some interesting things to do this year- dividing the time up into silent and social time.

See you when we get back!

Bible nasties 5- a little discussion about ‘truth’…

OK, I have been avoiding this a little, but perhaps it is time to dig into a few philosophical ideas about the nature of truth.

It is a long time since I studied philosophy as a student, so this may well be a little low rent- but I hope it’s relevance to our discussion about the nature of the Biblical truth will be obvious.

Correspondance theory

Thirteenth Century philosopher/theologian Thomas Aquinas said this “A judgment is said to be true when it conforms to the external reality”, which is a posh way of saying that if what you say of an object is correct, it is true.  Truth is a matter of accurately copying what was much later called “objective reality” and then representing it in thoughts, words and other symbols.

This kind of truth is the common sense kind- the see it, touch it, smell it kind. It is the kind of truth that we assume that the Bible uses.

Coherence theory

Truth is primarily a property of whole systems of propositions, and can be ascribed to individual propositions only according to their coherence with the whole. In other words, truth is only testable when understood within a wider system of ideas and concepts. To understand what is true, we have to approach it from within a set of wider propositions.

Which is exactly what we do with the Bible, even if we do not always acknowledge it. We read the book of Revelation not with the cultural assumptions of a first Century Jewish follower of Jesus, living under oppression and well used to the literary format of apocalyptic writing, but rather from the truth system of a 21st C people, in the shadow of all those end times theories.

Or we read the Gospel of John and the book of Romans, then reinterpret the rest of the Bible from a perspective gained just from an understanding of these two books.

Constructivist theory

Truth is constructed by social processes, is historically and culturally specific, and that it is in part shaped through the power struggles within a community. So the truth we encounter is an amalgam of the culture and context we live and walk in, and is rarely neutral- rather it tends to be shaped by those who have the most power.

So we see the the Bible used to justify war, slavery, racism, oppression of minority groups.

Consensus theory

Truth is what ever is agreed upon by a specific group.

There have always been groups whose readings of the Bible have been idiosyncratic and sometimes downright loony. The Westboro Baptist Church come to mind for example.

Pragmatic theory

Truth is verified and confirmed by the results of putting one’s concepts into practice. So it is only when we test our ideas and concepts in real life situations, or scientific method that we can engage with truth. In this way, truth is self corrective over time.

A recent refinement, known as ‘negative pragmatism’- “We never are definitely right, we can only be sure we are wrong.”

These two ideas of truth as also closely mirrored in theological approaches to the Bible. The 19th C enlightenment sought to prove God, with the Bible as it’s source material. CS Lewis and his huge intellect might be seen as a logical outcome of Pragmatic theory applied to theological truth.

More recently, apologetics have become less fashionable. We have been forced to accept that arriving at a final understanding of truth is always going to be problematic. Alfred North Whitehead,  said: “There are no whole truths; all truths are half-truths. It is trying to treat them as whole truths that play the devil”.

Next, a wee trip through some of the philosophical heavyweights to see what they have to say about truth-


Truth is available to us as we apply our reason to external objects. But the ultimate arbiter of this external truth is- God. I think, therefore there is God.


Kant suggested that the problem with correspondence theory is that if an external object is to be ‘true’ then it has to be recognised, and considered internally- at which point it is no longer external, no longer objective. So our encounters with truth are changed by our own interaction with them- by the person that we bring to that truth.


For Søren Kierkegaard, objective truth has real limitations, in that it cannot shed any light upon that which is most essential to a person’s life- Objective truths(mathematical, scientific, physical) are concerned with the facts of a person’s being, while subjective truths are concerned with a person’s way of being.

He is also strong on the division between objective and subjective truth- objective truths are final and static, subjective truths are continuing and dynamic. Values, faith and ethics, according to Kierkegaard, can only be understood when filtered through an individuals subjective experience.

Some inconclusive conclusions…

So- where does all this take us to, in relation to the Bible?

For me, the philosophical approaches to truth open up the idea that any ‘facts’, when viewed from a human perspective are likely to be nuanced, complex and to serve hidden human purposes. If we believe that the Bible is a human document- even allowing for heavenly inspiration- then we have to accept that it is laden with these same questions.

There will continue to be those who will assert that the truth of the Bible belongs to God- and as such it is not contingent on our engagement with it, or understanding/belief of it- it just is. The trouble is that people who assert this often appear to be willing to commit themselves to a claim to understand this truth.

As for me, I am left with two useful starting points-

Karen Ward differentiates between ‘small theologies’ (or you could say small truths)- worked out in community, and ‘big theologies’ (big truths)- belonging to academia and the church hierarchy. In this way, I think that an idea of truth can be negotiated with your friends, in humility, and in respect of the tradition. Getting it all 100% ‘right’ is not an option, or even an aspirational goal. Rather we should expect to be teachable and open to transformation by the Spirit within us.

Then there is also that bit in Romans 14 where Paul talks about ‘disputable matters’-

1 Accept the one whose faith is weak, without quarreling over disputable matters. 2One person’s faith allows them to eat anything, but another, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables. 3 The one who eats everything must not treat with contempt the one who does not, and the one who does not eat everything must not judge the one who does, for God has accepted them. 4 Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To their own master, servants stand or fall. And they will stand, for the Lord is able to make them stand.

5 One person considers one day more sacred than another; another considers every day alike. Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind. 6 Whoever regards one day as special does so to the Lord. Whoever eats meat does so to the Lord, for they give thanks to God; and whoever abstains does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God. 7 For none of us lives for ourselves alone, and none of us dies for ourselves alone.8 If we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord. 9 For this very reason, Christ died and returned to life so that he might be the Lord of both the dead and the living.

Paul is speaking to a church in the middle of a truth war, and he says, more or less- there are more important things to be getting on with…

Censoring Royal Weddings…

Apparently a planned satirical show in Australia that had been planned to use some footage of tomorrows Royal Wedding has been prevented from doing so by the Royal Family.

Sorry to be a sour pus- but I just do not get it. All this fuss over the weddings of anachronistic archaic figureheads. I remember the last Royal Wedding- I was on a walking holiday in the Lake District. I am off camping on a small island this time! You could say I am indulging in a little personal censorship.

All the Diana stuff- before and after her tragic death- it was always a total tabloid distraction from real issues. She seemed to me to be a rather vacuous person married to a chromosome too far.

As you might guess, I am not a Royalist- I have decided that I am a lazy Republican. I would rather be rid of the lot of them, but at the same time I am not sure what we would do instead. And they are rather decorous… A bit like visiting a Stately home- a crumbling relic of a time when the masses lived and worked at the behest and whim of the few. Perhaps we still do.

Anyway- here is the story.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

In which I adopt for myself, an anthem…

I first came across Over the Rhine a few years ago at Greenbelt festival- I was on my way somewhere and stopped for a few mins to have a listen, and found myself rooted right to the end of the set. I bought a couple of albums, which were OK, but more recently on the back of some rave reviews, I got hold of their new album ‘The Long Surrender’.

It is brilliant- soulful, bluesy, with tinges of Jazz and Country.

And it passed that test of all good music-of-meaning (which is all I am interested in these days)- it made me cry.

There is this one song, for instance, near the end, which I have decided to adopt as an anthem for a while. With apologies to my friends, it speaks of the best of us being broken- and in this broken vulnerability, we find each other and the beauty that life is all about…

There is also a wonderful sax solo that fades into brokenness and is tender and lovely.

Here it is- go buy the album!

The Archbishop and the little girl…

Did anyone see this story over the weekend?

It seems that the father of a little girl called Lulu took objection to the teachers at her Scottish Church primary school ‘doing God’. Curiously Lulu was asked to write a letter to God, entitled “To God; how did you get invented?”

Lulu’s Dad, who is not a believer, cheekily forwarded the letter to the Scottish Episcopal church (no reply- sorry Andrew!) the Church of Scotland (no reply) the Catholic church of Scotland (a nice but complex answer) and finally to Lambeth Palace- and received this reply;

Dear Lulu,

Your dad has sent on your letter and asked if I have any answers. It’s a difficult one! But I think God might reply a bit like this –

‘Dear Lulu – Nobody invented me – but lots of people discovered me and were quite surprised. They discovered me when they looked round at the world and thought it was really beautiful or really mysterious and wondered where it came from. They discovered me when they were very very quiet on their own and felt a sort of peace and love they hadn’t expected.

Then they invented ideas about me – some of them sensible and some of them not very sensible. From time to time I sent them some hints – specially in the life of Jesus – to help them get closer to what I’m really like.

But there was nothing and nobody around before me to invent me. Rather like somebody who writes a story in a book, I started making up the story of the world and eventually invented human beings like you who could ask me awkward questions!’

And then he’d send you lots of love and sign off.

I know he doesn’t usually write letters, so I have to do the best I can on his behalf. Lors of love from me too.

+Archbishop Rowan


Garden resurrection…

We had a lovely day yesterday.

As a celebration of Easter, some of the Aoradh crowd gathered at our house. We ate a meal together, sang some songs, then did some activities with the kids- including the ubiquitous easter egg hunt.

Then we sat round a fire, next to a little stone ‘tomb’ and told the story of the Mary, and the garden.

Then we lingered. And spoke of life, and faith.

It felt very special- in the way that deep time with friends can be… a lovely way to celebrate Easter.

Lent, 40…

I know that strictly speaking lent ended yesterday- but here is the final piece from ’40’- Si Smith’s lovely images of Jesus in the wilderness, along with my words. It has been quite a journey. If you enjoyed it, then you can download or order a physical copy of it from Proost.

So, the journey continued- back into a world of men-


To all the homes and houses

And the broken down old shacks

To the Priests and the soldiers

To the slaves and the fat cats


To the athlete and the cripple

To the beggar and the king

To the broken and the dying

And those who have no song to sing


To the place where children squabble

And the old folk gossip in the square

And the singing from the synagogue

Calls the town for prayer


To all this living and this loving

This fecundity of life…


Now is your time my friends

And mine

Easter- the story in the garden…

I wrote this piece for our Aoradh Easter gathering… He is alive!

It was still dark when Mary left the house.

Not that she had been sleeping. The house was full of fear since Jesus had been taken. Fear of the soldiers coming by torchlight and beating on their doors. Fear that they too would face a long lingering death on a cross.

But there was something worse than fear- worse even than death. When they killed Jesus, everything that Mary had hoped for- everything she had believed in- had fallen apart.

All she had left was a dead body.

To prepare for the grave.

She would have gone sooner- but yesterday had been a religious festival, and the pew police would have been out in force to prevent anything that looked like work. Particularly this kind of work, for this kind of man.

So she carefully closed the door behind her, and gathered her cloak against the morning chill and walked softly through the empty streets towards the edge of town.

As the sky lightened to the east, she came to a small hilly area, full of cool early morning shadows, and grand old trees. It was the garden of a rich man- where he had prepared a tomb for his family.

He had been one of those ‘secret’ supporters of Jesus- Mary felt anger burn in her- another powerful religious type who had a reputation to maintain. Where was he during the terrible mock trial…and the beating…and the humiliation….and the long walk toGolgotha? Still- he had supplied the tomb which was not without risk, and had also paid for some expensive perfume and spices with which to prepare the body. Guilt money she thought, bitterly.

It was already getting lighter as she walked under the trees, the dew on the grass soaking the hem of her skirt. It suddenly occurred to her that the tomb would be closed. The stone would have been rolled across the entrance and her journey would have been in vain. A sudden anxiety quickened her steps.

A rocky outcrop lay ahead, still laced with morning mist. She was almost there.

As she reached the tomb, shafts of low sunlight were beginning to filter through the trees, making it hard to see clearly.

The tomb was open.

Someone had moved the stone.

Mary’s pace slowed almost to a stop. She walked as if through water. And she had forgotten to breathe.

Standing in the entrance to the tomb, her eyes had to adjust to the darkness. She finally took a shaky gasp of air, and steeled herself for the task ahead.
Steeled herself for another glimpse of that broken body.

But the stone cut slab lay empty.

Empty apart from the winding sheets.

At first, she could not take it in. What was this? What did it mean?

Then it hit her like a new bereavement. It was not enough that they should just kill him, they also needed to erase his memory from the people. The last thing they needed was a shrine to give a focal point for more of his kind of revolutionary activity.

They had taken the body.

They had taken her Lord.


Later, when she told the story (and there were always people who wanted to hear it) she would always struggle to remember what happened next.

She knew that she had started running- retracing her steps through the garden, and back into the town. The streets were coming alive, and she must have looked like a mad woman, running crying over the cobbles and hammering on the door.

She knew too that Simon and John set off to the tomb to see for themselves, because she followed behind.

She remembered walking the garden, hardly able to see the ground in front of her because of her tears.

In the middle of it all, she found herself back at the tomb- but she was no longer alone. Two men, dressed in white stood with her. She was past caring who they were, or where they had come from but remembered the surprise in their voices when they asked her “Woman, why are you crying?”

A strange question to ask anyone in a tomb.

Then she stood in the morning light again, not knowing what to do, where to go, who to speak to. Feeling desperate, alone and hopeless.

Suddenly, came another voice- “Who is it you are looking for?”

She mumbled something about the taking of a body, and taking him for a gardener, began to ask if he knew anything about what had happened, when another word stopped her in mid sentence.

“Mary” he said.

Spoken softly and gently- with a tinge of humour, and a dripping with of love.

It was a word on which her whole life pivoted.

He was alive.

And now, so was she.

Bible nasties 4- that word ‘context’…

I was reading about a recent archaeological discovery at Fin Cop iron age hill fort, in the English Peak District, near where I grew up.

A mass grave has been discovered- full of the bones of women and children. The bodies appear to have been thrown into the surrounding ditch and the smashed remains of the fort thrown down on top of them.

To make sense of this story, we have to understand something of the context in which the events happened- the culture, the dynastic background, the history.

I read about the Fin Cop massacre at the same time as I was thinking about all that Old Testament bloodshed. The parallels are rather obvious.

In 500BC, most of the killing that the ancient Israelites indulged in with such apparent approval from God was over. They were then a defeated people, living under Babylonian rule. But what hit me again is the approach that many Christians make to the Bible, and the stories that it contains.

The stories tend to be imported into our context with a lot of fixed assumptions.

Firstly the assumption that they are ‘true’- in the sense of being 100% accurate factual historical records of real events.

Secondly, the assumption that God is speaking to us directly through these words, which then require no testing, no wrestling- rather our role is to be passive acceptors of heavenly revelation.

Thirdly the assumption that God himself wrote the words- each individual one, and therefore any challenge to either of the two assumptions above is a direct challenge of God himself, and is therefore heresy.

Perhaps you might think that these assumptions are just fine. I have struggled with them over the years- and coped by not allowing myself to ask questions.

Because once you start, it is impossible to stop.

One of the first questions that start to challenge the above assumptions is this one- context. The writings in the Old Testament concern events that happened around 2000 years before the birth of Jesus. The oldest evidence for Hebrew writing is around the 10th C BC, but most scholars believe that the books of the OT were first written down around the 6th C BC. What this means is that the stories were passed down by oral tradition for countless generations.

Many of these generations, like the people who lived at Fin Cop, were short and bloody.

So stories were told of Abraham, who started it all, and of Jacob who sustained the wandering tribe during slavery. Then there were the stories of the birth of a nation out of the years in the desert, and the rise of great kings and great kingdoms. Stories justified, sustained and unified- particularly during the hard times of exile and captivity.

And in the middle of it all- woven through the whole- is God. Hopes for God, encounters with God, fears cast on to God, prayers to God. A people whose stories are covered by the fingerprints of God.

What might we expect then of these stories, when we allow ourselves to consider something of the context?

Might we expect them to be historically 100% accurate- and ‘true’? Well, frankly no. That is not their point. They were living stories to bring breath to an exiled proud people- they were not eyewitness accounts of a traffic accident (which, come to think of it, are not necessarily ‘true’ either.)

Might we believe that God is speaking to us through the words, and that our role is just to accept them with no challenge, no test, no questioning?  To which I reply Yes, and no. Wrestling and questioning with textual meaning are spiritual practices, when done with honesty and integrity- and the certainty that whatever meaning we find will be partial, and certainly not the final version of truth that will emerge from the text.

Do we need to believe that God wrote/inspired every word, completed and whole, and that to question this is heresy? My answer to this is- no, we do not. But then perhaps I am a heretic. Because I have come to believe that this view of the text has more to do with the need that a modern context had for quantifiable, objective, rationalised evidence for God.

Context is important. As are at least 11 other ways of reading these ancient writings.

But there are many ways to approach this wonderful collection of writing- all of them flawed. Because the words are always filtered through the reader.